The hurricane of elements that’s led to such a rich and rewarding period of documentary filmmaking – technological advances reducing the cost of production, an explosion of online options for viewing, the ongoing incorporation of documentary aesthetics into mainstream entertainment – contributed to an extraordinary year in non-fiction, one in which this particular viewer had as much trouble making a top-ten documentary list as a conventional narrative one. (More, perhaps.) On top of all that, the events of the world outside the frame – and those which, in some cases, worked their way into it – lent a particular urgency to non-fiction moviemaking, which seeks to capture and convey facts and truths, in a media landscape where those elements are too easily dismissed or politicized. Whether attempting to penetrate that logjam, or merely telling small, personal stories and finding truth there, this year’s crop of documentary films is, simply put, extraordinary. These were the best.
Few documentarians match Brett Morgen’s deftness at telling a new story by organizing (and re-organizing) existing elements; his films on Kurt Cobain, the Rolling Stones, and the media frenzy of the O.J. Simpson case made those pop cultural artifacts seem fresh and new again. Here, he sculpts 100+ hours of footage, most of it shot in the 1960s (long thought lost, then rediscovered in 2014) to show how Jane Goodall – a researcher’s secretary, with no training or scientific degree, inspiringly refused to accept her “place” and ended up doing some of the most important in-the-field scientific research of her time. Combining that extraordinary footage, her own narration and interviews, and a Philip Glass score that’s stirring in that very specific Philip Glass way, Morgen paints a portrait of an innovator and groundbreaker from both a professional and personal perspective, wisely shortchanging neither.